About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Rolling Stone thinks it <3′s this pope (plus, Mark signs out)

For reasons probably more associated with my age than anything else, the old Dr. Hook song, “(On the) Cover of the Rolling Stone,” which equated placement on the front of rock’s top magazine with true accomplishment in life, ran through my mind when I first learned that Pope Francis would get pride-of-place in the magazine’s Feb. 13 issue. The comparisons with Dr. Hook (who eventually got their cover) end there, however. This piece is pretty much an early Valentine to its subject.

Mark Binelli, a “novelist and contributing editor to Rolling Stone,” as his bio notes, got the nod to proffer a pontifical profile, and as might be expected from a truly non-conservative publication, Francis comes off closer to Dorothy Day than to George Weigel:

Up close, Pope Francis, the 266th vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth, a man whose obvious humility, empathy and, above all, devotion to the economically disenfranchised has come to feel perfectly suited to our times, looks stouter than on television. Having famously dispensed with the more flamboyant pontifical accessories, he’s also surprisingly stylish, today wearing a double-breasted white overcoat, white scarf and slightly creamier cassock, all impeccably tailored.

The topic of Francis’ catechesis, or teaching, is Judgment Day, though, true to form, he does not try to conjure images of fire and brimstone. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, speaking on the topic, once said, “Today we are used to thinking: ‘What is sin? God is great, he understands us, so sin does not count; in the end God will be good toward all.’ It’s a nice hope. But there is justice, and there is real blame.”

Francis, 77, by contrast, implores the crowd to think of the prospect of meeting one’s maker as something to look forward to, like a wedding, where Jesus and all of the saints in heaven will be waiting with open arms. He looks up from his script twice to repeat key lines: avanti senza paura (“go without fear”) and che quel giudizio finale è già in atto (“the final judgment is already happening”). Coming from this pope, the latter point sounds more like a friendly reminder. His voice is disarmingly gentle, even when amplified over a vast public square.,

Yes, sports fans, time for another long, slobbering kiss from a media outlet inclined to see Papa Francesco as their own theological Rorschach test, an ideological ink-blot that shows what they want to see.

There are, approximately, 7,600 words in this account — I knocked off about 125 words from what Microsoft Word tallied because of links and other bits Rolling Stone inserted in the text — and it would take a post of almost the same length to diagram and dissect the article fully. For starters, suffice it to say that Binelli wasn’t a fan of Francis’ predecessor:

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Time magazine claims that Bible-ness is next to Godliness

An old Salvation Army musical production — the kind of church entertainment often aimed at youngsters and teen-agers — had a catchy little chorus about that Christian group’s fabled “slum sisters” of years ago, whose work in tenements was legendary:

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness

“Soap-and-water is divine.”

Those words came to mind as I read a rather astonishing Time magazine online piece that seems to put a whole lot of, well, faith in a survey undertaken by the Barna Group for the American Bible Society:

America, you may have a new Sodom and Gomorrah.

The two least “Bible-minded” cities in the United States are the adjacent metros of Providence, R.I., and New Bedford, Mass., according to a study out Wednesday from the American Bible Society.

The study defines “Bible-mindedness” as a combination of how often respondents read the Bible and how accurate they think the Bible is. “Respondents who report reading the bible within the past seven days and who agree strongly in the accuracy of the Bible are classified as ‘Bible Minded,’” says the study’s methodology.

Yowza! If there isn’t “enough” Bible reading in New Bedford, watch out for the brimstone! Oh, and don’t look back, or you could become a true pillar of the community. (Cue snare drum!)

While I don’t want to demean the American Bible Society, a nobile group that has had its ups and downs recently, or belittle the research that the Barna folks have done, I was struck both by the research results — more on that in a moment — and Time‘s interpretation of the data.

Providence and New Bedford are noted for many things, but a modern day Sodom-and-Gomorrah — when it comes to moral conduct — isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, or even the second or third.

In other words, did anyone ask this basic question: Is Bible-less-ness really an indicator of rampant sinning?

I’m not saying folks shouldn’t read the Scriptures — I’m all for it — but might we have a little more here on the part of Time to make the connection? You know, some, er, data or facts perhaps?

Instead, I get the feeling that this piece was intended to generate heat, and not light. The snark from the lede morphs into hair-splitting later on:

Surprisingly, that den of sin called New York City didn’t make the top ten least Bible-minded cities, coming in at 89th in the list of 100. Suspecting New York’s large Jewish population may have rescued it from the bottom ten, TIME inquired as to whether the Torah counted as the Bible for the purposes of the survey. A spokesperson said questioners left it up to respondents to determine what they considered to be the sacred text, but the question asked was, “How many times do you read the bible outside of church or a synagogue?”

Har-de-har-har, Time, now that’s a real thigh-slapper!

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LATimes pours out its love for the ‘spiritual’ Williamson

A positive news story about a political newcomer isn’t unusual. Newspapers and television outlets do these sorts of things regularly, and for all sorts of reasons.

So on one level, it’s not all that surprising that the Los Angeles Times offered a rather complimentary — some might even say “fawning” — profile of New Age authoress and teacher Marianne Williamson, who is challenging longtime area Congressman Henry J. Waxman in the 2014 elections. Here is a sample of the prose:

It was a Thursday night, normally a slow time for churches and synagogues, but the sanctuary of The Source Spiritual Center in Venice was packed.

When a diminutive woman stepped to the front of the room, people paused in their scramble for a chair or purchase of a T-shirt and engulfed her in cheers and applause.

She called for a moment of silence. The audience stilled. She dedicated the evening ahead “to all that is good … to the fulfillment of love” in everyone.

“And so it is,” concluded Marianne Williamson — friend of Oprah, associate of Hollywood elites, best-selling author and charismatic spiritual leader.

Williamson has spent three decades offering a path to inner peace for those who seek it. Now she’s entering an arena in which inner — and outer — peace seems in particularly short supply: She’s challenging Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) for the congressional seat he first won when Gerald Ford was president and the country was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial.

“This is a journey we’re all taking together over the next few months,” Williamson told the crowd of 200 or so who had shown up that night to volunteer for her campaign. In the cadence of a revival-meeting preacher, she talked of a corrupt system in which the two major parties and the corporations that fund them have “locked out” citizens and ignored some of the country’s most pressing problems.

There’s no doubt that Williamson has a following, and that many, if not most, of those followers appreciate the spiritual aspect of her work, which often centers on “A Course in Miracles,” the so-called “Third Testament” and New Age tract that is popular with a large number of readers. Her own books have often been best sellers, including “A Return to Love,” which appears to have catapulted Williamson into national prominence. Williamson also appears to have some solid credentials in terms of community service and activism, so her entry into politics is a bit more serious than some celebrities’ ventures might have been.

The Times discusses all this and includes a bit more about Williamson’s spiritual journey:

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NYTimes late to the story on ‘Women at the Pulpit’

Proving that when there isn’t really news, one can perhaps manufacture some, The New York Times is, once again, late to the story on a topic of religious significance. When last GetReligion examined the Times‘ timing on a story, George Conger found the Gray Lady, as the paper is known, to have just discovered the rise of Calvinism in non-Calvinist precincts — a good five years of so after many other media outlets had done so.

Now, the Times has made another one of these startling discoveries: there are women folk — yep, females! — in some of New York City’s pulpits! They’re actually preaching and leading congregations! The Times even has pictures! (Although, to be candid, the image shown here, of the late Aimee Semple McPherson, who was definitely a woman and definitely not a New York City pastor, isn’t among those photos.)

My gripe isn’t so much with the story itself, per se, but rather the “newness” of this, not to mention the tremendous assumptions buried in a paragraph such as this one:

Contributing to the growing numbers of women becoming pastors are real estate and denominations. Churches formed in nontraditional spaces, like storefronts, offer aspiring pastors more opportunities to preach. And in Holiness and Pentecostal churches, ordination and authority often come directly from the Spirit, said the Rev. Dr. Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary.

Now that is quite a mouthful, isn’t it? They’ve had storefront churches in New York City for, what, 50 or 60 years at least? And only now are women empowered to preach in them? I’m sorry, but as a native of New York City (born in Manhattan in 1957 and having lived in the borough of Queens, chiefly, through 1985) who has returned scores of times since leaving, I recall lots of situations involving women in preaching situations long before this sudden “boom.”

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UK journo’s ‘General’ Salvation Army confusion

London’s Telegraph newspaper generally does a serviceable job when reporting on religion, but a recent commentary news article contrasting the beliefs of The Salvation Army (they prefer the article capitalized) with those of the rest of Protestantism and those of the Roman Catholic Church, titled, “The Pope and the Salvation Army,” accomplishes nothing, in my view, as much as muddying the waters. One wonders what Pope Francis (shown above greeting General Linda Bond, who retired in June 2013 as the movement’s international leader) or General André Cox, the Army’s current chief executive, would make of it all.

First, there’s the confusion — in my mind, at least — as to whether this is a news article or a commentary. It’s labeled as “news” on the Telegraph’s website, but perhaps the word “commentary” or “analysis” or “opinion” appears in the printed version. It may well be intended as a commentary, but it’s not presented that way.

But either as a news story or a commentary, the piece, written by Christopher Howse, a Catholic journalist who did a stint at Britain’s Tablet magazine, fails on several levels in relation to the Army, its beliefs and its reasoning. (Disclosure: I can speak with some authority here, having been a Salvation Army lay church member for 17 years before joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1999. I also married a Salvation Army officer, or pastor, and wrote for several Army publications, including their annual yearbook in 1997.)

There’s little to suggest a hard news angle as the story begins, however:

What is the difference between the General of the Salvation Army and the Pope? Less than I presumed a week ago. Both, of course, care about the poor, which has ever been a mark of the Church.

“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life,” declared St John Chrysostom 1,600 years ago. “The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”

Until last week, I’d thought the Salvation Army was Calvinist. That is no crime. But the Army, I find, believes that the “saved” can backslide. “We believe that continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ.” That is No 8 in the 11 succinct doctrines of the Salvation Army. As William Booth put it in 1879: “We are a salvation people – this is our speciality – getting saved and keeping saved, and then getting somebody else saved, and then getting saved ourselves more and more.” One hostile commentator on the internet characterises such a belief as “demonic works-salvation”.

It’s only three paragraphs later that we come to the startling revelation that William Booth, the Founder and first General of The Salvation Army was — wait for it — a Wesleyan Methodist. That, if you can believe it, is why Booth and his Army weren’t Calvinist, because John Wesley wasn’t one. Phew! That was a close one! (And, yes, there’s a bit of snark here, which I’ll explain in a moment.)

Howse then goes on to chastise the Army for being non-sacramental, performing neither baptism nor celebrating the Eucharist:

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NYTimes mostly ‘gets it’ on German schools and Islam

A few days ago, George Conger took to this space to “bury” The New York Times for suddenly noticing the rise of Calvinism in unlikely Protestant venues, such as (Southern) Baptist churches.

Today, I’d like to congratulate the Times for, mostly, “getting it” when it comes to Germany’s public schools and religious instruction, in this case about Islam. Here’s the top of that report:

FRANKFURT – For the first time, German public schools are offering classes in Islam to primary school students using state-trained teachers and specially written textbooks, as officials try to better integrate the nation’s large Muslim minority and counter the growing influence of radical religious thinking.

The classes offered in Hesse State are part of a growing consensus that Germany, after decades of neglect, should do more to acknowledge and serve its Muslim population if it is to foster social harmony, overcome its aging demographics and head off a potential domestic security threat.

The need, many here say, is ever more urgent. According to German security officials and widespread reports in the German news media, this past semester at least two young Germans in Hesse — one thought to be just 16 — were killed in Syria after heeding the call for jihad and apparently being recruited by hard-line Salafist preachers in Frankfurt.

This is, in my opinion, Times reporting just about at its best: a crisp, clean lede, and a close-to-the-top explanation of what it means.

Granted, it’s a bit late, I would suggest, in terms of Germany’s government, since questions about assimilation of “guest workers” from predominantly Muslim nations, beginning with Turkey, has been an issue for decades. But better (very) late than never, one supposes.

There’s also a bit of explanation on how “religious instruction” has come to be in “public” (i.e., state-sponsored) schools, a concept that might be a tad jarring in the U.S. of A., where even bringing candy canes to class can get a grade-schooler in trouble. Read on.

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Daily Mail: Welby ‘casts out sin’ in new baptismal rite — not

In my opinion, looking to London’s Daily Mail for religion news coverage is rather like looking to People magazine for peer-reviewed medical studies. Once in a great while there might just be a People article that accurately references some startling medical development — and the studies behind same — but that’s not the publication’s stock-in-trade.

So when the celebrity-saturated British tabloid — “Buffy The Vampire Player: Sarah Michelle Gellar has a blast with daughter Charlotte and her pal as they enjoy day at the beach” is a typical headline — dips into the Godbeat, you know something’s up. How thoroughly accurate that something will be is, well, another matter.

The Church of England, like many communions, practices pedobaptism — the baptism of infants and very young children. Its ceremony has, for years, required both parents and godparents to express their dedication to God and a repudiation of sin and Satan alike. Now, the Daily Mail revealed in a January 5 story that sparked global headlines, the CofE wants to change the script, something with which traditionalists are allegedly none-too-happy.

The report starts with a typical Mail-style headline, this time referencing a popular British soap opera: “Welby casts out ‘sin’ from christenings: Centuries-old rite rewritten in ‘language of EastEnders’ for modern congregation” is the top line. After that, the news:

Parents and godparents no longer have to ‘repent sins’ and ‘reject the devil’ during christenings after the Church of England rewrote the solemn ceremony.

The new wording is designed to be easier to understand – but critics are stunned at such a fundamental change to a cornerstone of their faith, saying the new ‘dumbed-down’ version ‘strikes at the heart’ of what baptism means.

In the original version, the vicar asks: ‘Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?’

Prompting the reply: ‘I reject them.’ They then ask: ‘Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?’, with the answer: ‘I repent of them.’

But under the divisive reforms, backed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and already being practised in 1,000 parishes, parents and godparents are asked to ‘reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises’ – with no mention of the devil or sin.

The new text, to be tested in a trial lasting until Easter, also drops the word ‘submit’ in the phrase ‘Do you submit to Christ as Lord?’ because it is thought to have become ‘problematical’, especially among women who object to the idea of submission.

Apart from the rather odd sight of a newspaper that trumpets the sins of A-list and D-list celebs with great fervor now discoursing on “no mention of the devil of sin,” the story’s superheated explanation for the trial change is another fun bit:

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NPR stumbles on GOP and Darwinian orthodoxy

Here’s a shocker, but not really. More Democrats than Republicans believe in evolution, or so says a survey from the Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew says:

…six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that ‘humans and other living things have evolved over time,’ while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that ‘humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’ The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

The predictable party gap seems of interest to many, though mostly political pundits.

National Public Radio is not content to leave speculation to mere political bloviators, however, and trumpets the change in party affiliation of creationists as a major political issue:

A new national survey showing that the share of Republicans who believe in evolution has tumbled from 54 to 43 percent over the past four years comes at an inopportune time.

The Pew Research poll suggests that the GOP, already struggling with an identity crisis and facing ferocious internal battles, is out of sync on the issue with independents and young voters, who are far more likely to believe in the science of evolution than their forebears.

NPR raises what it considers the key question:

But just how politically significant is the finding, which shows that the evolution belief gap between Republicans and Democrats has since 2009 grown from 10 percentage points to 24 points?

Now there are all sorts of interesting — and interested — people who could address the topic. People who are experienced in science and theology, or people who hold informed opinions about evolution or creationism. Instead, the first “expert” sought out by NPR is a political consultant, albeit a Republican one:

For Republican strategists like Whit Ayres, however, the evolution results are politically insignificant. More than anything, he says, it reflects the trend of both parties gravitating toward their more extreme wings, which, in the GOP, includes evangelical Christians. He argues that it is unlikely to define the GOP negatively or otherwise in any sustaining way.

“It’s not a particularly surprising result, especially if you follow Gallup data on how Americans interpret the Bible,” says Ayres, of North Star Opinion Research. “There’s a significant minority of Americans who believe that the Bible is the actual true word of God.”

Apart from a grammatical flaw that always annoys me — did they really talk to Ayres or someone “like” him? — why is his view on how many Americans believe “the Bible is the actual true word of God” more useful than that of Randall Balmer or George Barna or someone else who “gets” debates about doctrine and science?

NPR does link to the Gallup numbers, but again, is there another, better voice? If so, you won’t find it here.

And what about the “political” implications of this interesting and crucial passage?

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